D-Day for councils as Pickles wields the axe

Today is D-Day for many of us, though it’s likely you may not have known it – today is the day councils in England find out how much (or how little) money they are going to be able to spend in the next two years.

Sam Bacon is a policy officer for Core Cities, but is writing in a personal capacity

Today is D-Day for many of us, though it’s likely you may not have known it – today is the day councils in England find out how much (or how little) money they are going to be able to spend in the next two years. The budget told us that local government would face a frontloaded real terms budgetary cut of 28 per cent over the next four years, but today will give us the detail on how this will be spread out across the country.

With an average cut of 10.7 per cent to individual authorities expected, today is one of the most significant moments in the coalition government’s programme so far.

Local government is often seen as the poor relative of central government; it lacks the glamour, the fame and the power of national politics. But councillors up and down the country are making decisions that directly impact on people’s daily lives through the running of local services.

Local government is one of those things that when it goes right should be invisible, but the responsibilities they have are enormous – they run everything from the leisure centres people use to the social care they rely on; from the libraries and schools that educate us to the youth offending and NEET teams that try and solve some of our most complex problems.

Put simply local government matters. So today will be a dark day for many of our communities with the cuts predicted to be the deepest local authority cuts in 65 years.

As the Local Government Association has been warning for some time, today’s cuts will mean parks, arts projects, leisure centres, swimming pools, theatres, music venues, public toilets and visitor information centres (to name just a few) across the country will now be in danger of closure. But however hard the challenge, there is always opportunity.

In the wake of the general election defeat and the (necessary) naval gazing that accompanied it, virtually no one in the Labour movement seems to have celebrated that Labour both held and won a number of significant areas at the local elections; most of the urban population centres of the UK are under the direct control of Labour local governments, many of the London boroughs are now Labour controlled, as well as half of the major cities in England outside of it and a large number of other metropolitan cities.

The fact that Labour is in control in so many areas should be celebrated by the Labour movement as it means a chance for them to reconnect with voters at the local level and show them how it can be a force for good.

It is a crass political game to make a show of giving power to local communities whilst at the same time forcing them to make draconian and far reaching cuts that will affect people’s jobs and services. That Labour has to live with this is the cost of not being in power nationally; however, the opportunity remains at the local level to show people the difference Labour values can make.

Today’s cuts to local authority budgets are akin to a hand grenade being thrown into our local communities, and many service users and providers will be rightly worried and anxious about the future that awaits them. Of course Eric Pickles has played down such concerns as petty, believing that forcing already overworked and under resourced local education, social care and cultural services to take on even greater workloads in the name of ‘shared services’ is like asking a lazy teenager to get up a bit earlier in the morning to work longer hours in the day.

For many of the valiant hardworking staff struggling at breaking point to provide frontline services across the country, such comments will be an insult.

But despite the hard choices that lie ahead because of less money, local leaders need to demonstrate that a council led by Labour is a council which values the people and the things that the coalition government would abandon. If Labour cannot show this locally where there are progressive choices that can be made, it should not be surprised if at the next general election people do not give it the chance to govern nationally.

• Once the figures are published this afternoon, Left Foot Forward will have more analysis of the impact of Pickles’s cuts.

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